On Wagner’s Birthday – Liebestod – from Tristan und Isolde – Wagner/Liszt

Following  April 23rd’s post, written on the joint birthdays of Prokofiev and Shakespeare, today’s post is written on Richard Wagner’s birthday, and the piece is the Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, transcribed for the piano by Liszt. A double dose of the Romantic piano, both in subject matter and musical style, as the grieving but rapturous Isolde dies by the body of her beloved Tristan at the conclusion of Wagner’s opera, in a blaze of chromatic harmony.

Liszt was an adept transcriber of other people’s music, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique  in 1833 after its premiere in Paris, all of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Schubert songs, Bach cantata movements, instrumental pieces and countless operatic themes. Operatic fantasies and paraphrases tended to include original material as well as the opera’s best-known  melodies, such as those found in the Rigoletto Paraphrase.But some transcriptions were almost verbatim adaptations for piano, and this is one of them.

Liszt was a skilled orchestrator and conductor himself, honing his skills while     Kappellmeister at the court of  Carl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Weimar, from 1848-1861. Not only that, but Liszt championed the music of Wagner, conducting numerous operatic performances; he knew Wagner’s style from the perspective of the composer’s orchestral soundworld.

In the Liebestod transcription, Liszt translates Wagner’s shimmering strings and Isolde’s aria into quiet tremolandi for piano accompanying the soprano’s line, which is projected with a cantabile, singing touch amidst a swirling texture of quasi-polyphonic complexity. There are important counter-melodies to project, and chords to be voiced judiciously. The music gradually builds in a series of ever-impassioned sequences until a shattering, ecstatic climax engulfs us all, both the performer and audience. As a solo pianist confined to ten fingers, one can almost feel Liszt’s frustration as he strives to get the maximum sound from the instrument, with pounded chords in both hands trying desperately to emulate the sound of a huge orchestra playing at full strength. Slowly and gradually the music subsides into blissful exaltation as Isolde slips away to join her lover in death.

Dare I point out, dear Liszt, that the final D sharp of the oboes in the penultimate bar really should be heard as a tie with all other instruments lifting briefly, as per the orchestral score? Try releasing all notes except a treble clef D sharp momentarily in between the final two bars, re-pedal, then play the last chord. Just a thought.

Two performances to enjoy – Horowitz, and then Hamelin, where the score can be followed.

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Prokofiev – Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet Op 75

The reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet. Frederic Lord Leighton, 1855

We all know the story. We’ve seen the play, we’ve watched the film, we’ve studied it at school, we know the quotes … Shakespeare’s characters, Romeo and Juliet, the ‘star-cross’d lovers’, have provided musical inspiration for Berlioz’s symphonie dramatique  of the same name, Tchaikowsky’s Overture-Fantasy, and Gounod’s opera. Prokofiev composed music for a ballet, and three orchestral suites derived from it; pianists are fortunate indeed to have Prokofiev’s arrangement of ten transcribed movements to enjoy. Today, 23  April, is Prokofiev’s birthday, and Shakespeare’s, so let’s celebrate some of those pieces as part of our exploration of The Romantic Piano.

The chirpy, opening Folk Dance is unfailingly cheerful, with its compound time signature giving an attractive rhythmic buoyancy.

Perhaps the best known excerpt  in the UK, owing to its use as the theme for ‘The Apprentice’, is the Dance of the Knights. This is a swashbuckling piece, driven, full of energy, with a contrasting middle section which needs a well measured, calmer pace.

Here is Lugansky:

It’s worth listening to the original orchestration to absorb some of the feeling for orchestral colour which is transcribed to the piano.

The LSO with Gergiev:

Or if you prefer lush pianism, try the final movement, Romeo bids Juliet Farewell –

And on YouTube, enjoy the even lusher orchestral colours in the ballet from which it is derived, in the 1955 film of the ballet .

I rather like this black and white version, too – starting at :18 –

‘There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C Major,’  said Prokofiev. Here’s one of them.  If you like scintillating fingerwork with a tranquil heart, The Young Juliet has both:

Quirky, Prokofiev-style biting humour? Masks:

And there are five more pieces to explore, easily found on YouTube and on disc.  Just the thing for a joint birthday celebration. Enjoy!

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Liszt – A Tale of Two Women. Sonetto del Petrarca 104

 I have written elsewhere of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, a set of three volumes plus a supplement, Venezia e Napoli , the composition of which spanned Liszt’s life from his twenties to his seventies, from youth to what used to be considered old age. And I have recorded the second volume. The music encompasses many places, literary works, art, sculpture, scenery, political statements, religion, and thoughts of death.

Inevitably, along the way, there was romance.

It is fascinating to see how Liszt reworked early pieces into their later forms. Liszt’s Tre Sonetti del Petrarca started life as songs. He received the inspiration for them from Petrarch’s Sonnets while travelling in Italy with Marie, Countess d’Agoult, (pictured above) in 1838-39.  They were reworked as piano solos, eventually appearing in the 1850s in the second volume of the AnnéesItalie; but by then Marie had been superceded in Liszt’s affections by Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (left).



The best known of the Sonetti is number 104, Pace non Trovo. Liszt prints the original sonnet in Italian; he wants us to know the poem …


In English – ‘I find no peace, but for war am not inclined; I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice; I soar in the heavens, but lie upon the ground; I hold nothing, though I embrace the whole world. Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast; he neither claims me for his own nor loosens my halter; he neither slays nor unshackles me; he would not have me live, yet leaves me with my torment. Eyeless I gaze, and tongueless I cry out; I long to perish, yet plead for succour; I hate myself, but love another. I feed on grief, yet weeping, laugh; death and life alike repel me; and to this state I am come, my lady, because of you.’

Comparison  with the voice/piano version, which is almost operatic, is helpful: the voice has a recitative before settling into a quasi-aria, whereas the piano version, after an opening which sounds to me like someone rushing up the stairs, moves quickly to three statements of the theme; one with chords in the style of a recitative, one at a forte dynamic level – the RH in a higher range, the LH now flowing. The third statement is the grandest: fortissimo, the RH in octaves, the LH in interlocking patterns of chords, with explosive bass octaves.  There are mood swings in the piece similar to the contrasts in the poem, with moments of great tenderness and repose giving way to torment and anguish.

The final section is masterly, as we are told who has caused the tumult in the poet’s life: ‘my lady, because of you’. The piece ends quietly, still with a harmonic  frisson which reminds us of the poet’s angst, even in the penultimate chord.

Here is Nelson Freire:


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Robert Schumann – A Romance for Clara – Op 28 No 2

Married the day before her twenty-first birthday against her father’s wishes, Clara Wieck was a concert pianist, composer, editor, supporter of Brahms, promoter of her husband Robert Schumann’s music – oh, and mother of eight children, of whom one died in infancy.

To introduce the Schumanns and their family, below is Robert Schumann’s Schlummerlied, composed on Christmas day 1841; the Schumann’s daughter Marie [left, aged about 30] had been born that year. Some charming photographs of the children accompany the recording.

Two years earlier, in 1839 , Clara received Three Romances Op 28 from her fiancé  Robert as a Christmas present. Robert did not consider them to be ‘good or worthy enough’ to be dedicated to her. In protest, Clara wrote to him on 1st January 1840 ‘… as your bride, you must indeed dedicate something further to me, and I know of nothing more tender than these 3 Romances, in particular the middle one, which is the most beautiful love duet.” Despite her enthusiasm for them, Clara also suggested that he revisit them, and some revisions were made before publication in October 1840. The couple had married the previous month. Robert later considered the Romances to be included among his most successful works, particularly the ‘middle one’ – even so, he dedicated them to someone else.

Marked Einfach – simply, (although the autograph uses the word Andantino,) this serene second Romance is written on three staves, with the thumbs playing an inner duet surrounded by the gently undulating accompaniment in the radiant key of F sharp major.

In ternary form, the middle section is more troubled; the melody, now in a serious, minor key, moves to the outer RH fingers, and the LH plays concerned octaves in dialogue with the RH. A syncopated rhythm creates a hemiola effect as the music moves towards the dark regions of C sharp minor, the LH settling on the ocean bed of the piano’s lowest range. An anxious rising sequence and disturbed rhythm contribute to the tension, beautifully resolved by the LH eventually reaching for a low C sharp as the dominant of the home key, turning the music back towards tonal safety.

There is a further climax and a pause; richly embroidered counterpoint creates a glowing tapestry of great beauty, concluded by the comforting reassertion of the tonic key. The postlude repeats the dotted rhythm of the main melody quietly, again and again, as the music draws to a close, hovering, suspended in mid-air.

Here is Benno Moiseiwitsch in two recordings, twenty years apart:

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The Romantic Piano

Arriving at a concert venue to give a recital some years ago, I was greeted by the promoter, who whispered to me: ‘I didn’t know what title to give your recital, so I’ve called it The Romantic Piano‘.  A sensible choice; I was playing music from the Romantic period.

But it got me thinking. The Romantic Piano can refer to music of the Romantic period; the Romantic Piano, as an instrument, differed from the piano of the Classical period; the Romantic Piano could refer to romantic subject matter as a work’s inspiration – eg Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, Drei Romanzen Op 28 by Schumann, etc.

So this year the blog and I will stroll through the repertoire, the instruments, the subject matter and the composers who have contributed to The Romantic Piano. And I hope you will join me.

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A farewell to Preludes from the Square d’Orleans – Chopin, and his neighbour, Alkan

Two further Preludes by Chopin end this year’s series of posts; but before writing about them,  I couldn’t say farewell to 2017’s  topic, The Ubiquitous Prelude, without a mention of the Preludes by Alkan, who lived near Chopin for a while in Paris. The two composers were firm friends. During the 1830s, Alkan moved into the fashionable Square d’Orléans, where, in 1842, both Chopin and George Sand became his neighbours in two separate apartments. (And looking back to my previous post about preludes, on 23 April 1837 Alkan took part in Liszt’s farewell concert in Paris, together with the 14-year-old César Franck.)

In all the major and minor keys, Alkan wrote 25 Préludes, dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 31  for Piano or Organ; they appeared in 1847. His Preludes  are in three volumes. They begin in C major, then go to the subdominant minor – f minor – (up a fourth); then we have D flat major, (down a third), followed by its subdominant minor – f sharp minor (up a fourth) etc. The cycle ends with a second prelude in C major. Most of the preludes have titles. One of the most remarkable is La chanson de la folle au bord de la merThe song of the mad woman on the sea-shore, where a groundswell of deep chords accompanies the high-pitched, eerie wailing of this tormented soul. And here is one of my inspirational teachers and a champion of Alkan’s music, Ronald Smith, to play it –

A good selection of five of the most approachable preludes appears in Alkan in Miniature  , including La Chanson de la folle, the  gentle Placiditas, and J’etais  endormie mais mon coeur veillait. which was Busoni’s favourite. Here is Ronald Smith’s recording, together with the score:


On one CD, Olli Mustonen has recorded Shostakovich’s Preludes as well as Alkan’s; an interesting coupling, which won a Gramophone Award in 1992.

Here is Mustonen –

And so to Chopin, and two ‘stand-alone’ preludes, which don’t belong to the Op 28 set of twenty-four, but which have associations with their copyists.

In  a letter to Julian Fontana from Majorca in 1839, Chopin wrote: ‘ … I send you the Preludes. Copy them, you and Wolff …’ So who were these two gentlemen, entrusted to make an accurate, hand-written copy of Chopin’s Preludes Op 28 to be given to the German publisher, while Chopin’s manuscript was destined for the French publisher, Pleyel?

Fontana was a close friend, a pianist and composer, a personal assistant, project manager, an amanuensis, general factotum and dogsbody to whom Chopin entrusted negotiations, arrangements and all sorts of tasks and errands. Letters to Fontana are full of directions to do this and that. In 1841 Chopin was composing the Prelude Op 45 in C sharp minor, and wrote to him from Nohant concerning the dedicatee’s name:

‘ I don’t know how Mme Czerniszew  spells her name; perhaps in the thing under the vase, or somewhere in the drawer of the little table, near that bronze ornament, you can find a card from her, or from the governess, or the daughter. If not I should be glad (if you don’t mind) if you would go to her — they already know you as my friend — at the Hôtel de Londres, Place Vendôme, if they are still in Paris, and ask, from me, that the young princess should give you her name in writing. You can say why: is it Tscher, or Tcher? Or, still better: ask Mlle Krauze, the governess. Say that I want to give a surprise to the young princess, and ask Mlle Krauze (who is very pretty) to write to you whether it is Elisabeth, and whether Tschernischef or ff: how they usually write it. Say that she can tell the princess (the mother), but not the daughter, as I don’t want her to know till I send it from here. If you would rather not do it, don’t mind saying so to me ; just let me know, and I will find out elsewhere.  But tell Schlesinger not to print the title yet; tell him I don’t know the spelling. But I hope that you will find a card in the house with the name…’ *

It’s a piece with a myriad of modulations and a sighing melody, while the accompaniment ebbs and flows. It pauses on a chromatic chord, and then a nebulous web of chromaticism falls and rises before the final few bars.

Pierre Wolff was a pianist friend who was a Professor of Piano at the Geneva Conservatory. In July 1834 Chopin composed  a quicksilver prelude for him as a gift, dated and signed on the second page –  ‘A mon ami, P Wolff. It was not published until August 1918.  

Here are both preludes, played by Murray Perahia. And, just for the record – the dedicatee of Prelude  Op 45 was Elisabeth Czernicheff. That’s Elisabeth with an ‘s’, Czernicheff with two ‘f’s. And a very Happy New Year to you all. Thanks for reading.

*From Chopin’s Letters, Collected by HENRYK OPIENSKI Translated from the original Polish and French with a Preface and Editorial notes by E. L. VOYNICH

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Cesar Franck – Prelude, Chorale and Fugue

Imagine a vast, darkened church, built on a huge scale, with candles flickering in the gloom before statues in alcoves along the aisles. A slight whiff of incense lingers in the air. Far up in the organ loft at the west end, a light appears. Stops are pulled out, and the organist starts to play softly, running his fingers over the keys, improvising, modulating, exploring.

That’s the image I always have in mind whenever I perform Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for piano, written in 1884. From 1858-1872 Franck was organist at the church of Sainte-Clotilde [pictured], the third of his posts as an organist. Although he trained as a pianist, the sound of the organ looms large in this piece, both in the style of writing and in its technical demands. Franck wrote a Prelude, Fugue and Variation for organ, and a Prelude, Aria and Finale for piano; his improvisations on the organ at the church were legendary. He was well versed in the ‘prelude’ genre.

The Prelude has an unusual texture; the melody falls on the second note of each set of eight demisemiquavers. It is highly chromatic and colourful, and in the mournful key of B minor, written in a harmonic language which is unique to Franck. It couldn’t be by anyone else. Silences are important as it progresses: to clear the air harmonically, to give room to breathe, and time to think. It should sound extemporised, the melody encircled by falling  patterns which swell and diminish.

Declamatory, questioning sections, based on new motifs, visit a rich assortment of keys above a walking bass which sounds literally like feet on the pedal-board. A soft, pp reprise based on the opening texture adds the sweetness of a brief visit to B major, before a forceful modulation to G sharp minor interjects, itself dismissed by a return to the home key. Frank adds two modulatory chords after what seems to be the final tonic, so that, rather like being on a revolving stage, we are transported elsewhere …

The music has moved from B minor to the warmth of E flat major for the Chorale movement, and from the Prelude’s falling cascades of demisemiquavers to block chords moving on each crotchet below the melody. An introductory section soon moves to C minor for the actual, hymn-like chorale, and it is here that Franck the organist can be witnessed. The well-shaped melody is in a high register in single notes. Chords lie beneath, and below them another walking bass in octaves, as if on a pedalboard, supporting the texture. But how to play all 7 notes simultaneously, covering 4 octaves – a melody, chords and a bass line  – with only two hands? Franck’s ingenious solution is via an arpeggiation; the LH arpeggiates the bass line octave, the RH follows and arpeggiates the four-voiced chords above, during which time the LH  flies over the RH into the treble register on each beat to pick out the notes of the melody, before flying back to the bass line for the next beat. It takes longer to read about it than to play it, but there is an inevitable time delay involved in this pianistic process, creating an aural effect not unlike the acoustic vagaries of a vast cathedral. The chorale is heard three times, each time more loudly and in a higher key, with intervening interludes. The piece comes to a close at the end of the third hearing of the chorale, the last two chords forming a plagal cadence. Amen.

Più Allegro – an episode prepares our ears for what is to come, by introducing a  three-note figure which will be part of the Fugal subject, stopping and starting, hesitating, then making a decision to launch itself into the Fugue proper via an anxious, spiralling flourish. The subject is torturous chromatically, as is the counter-subject, with semitones pulling against each other as each voice enters the fugal exposition. Highly contrapuntal episodes enrich the texture,  and listen out for devices such as inversion, imitation, and fragments of the subject calling and answering each other amidst flowing triplets. The music reaches a mighty climax; a pungent neapolitan 6th gives way to a pause on the harmonic precipice  of a dominant 7th chord. So we’re going to the tonic, yes? N0 – Franck launches into a furious coda, the fugal theme pounded out in the midst of a swirling texture taken from the Prelude. Here is Franck the organist, revelling in colour. The tension gradually subsides, ushering in an ethereal version of the chorale melody. Save your  most magical sound for this moment. More modulations and huge dynamic growth lead to a climactic collision where Franck pulls off the extraordinary feat of the fugal subject, the chorale melody and the Prelude figuration – all at the same time. Tonality moves to the major, and a dominant pedal point, so beloved of organists, can be heard; then at last, we are rewarded by the longed-for relief of the tonic chord of B Major and the chorale melody in the major key. Peals of bells, jubilation, triumph. Journey’s end, at a satisfying destination.

I was privileged to learn this work with Roy Shepherd, who studied it with Alfred Cortot at the Ecole Normale in Paris. Below is Cortot’s recording.


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